The UK negotiators must ensure a clean break from the ever-expanding EU Defence project

The UK negotiators must ensure a clean break from the ever-expanding EU Defence project

There is a fundamental problem with getting to grips with EU Defence integration. So much is happening, on many different fronts, it creates a confusing cacophony. 

It’s important that we get our facts squared away. Brussels is not on the very cusp of tomorrow generating a vast standing army as we would recognise it, with oaths of allegiance paid to the President of the EU, and whose ranks are swelled through conscription. To suggest so is to invite ridicule. It is also damaging to the credibility of those setting out the extensive detail on precisely what is happening, and the direct and indirect threats that arise from a post-Brexit UK remaining perched in the institutional sidecar.

We a dealing with a process, developing at different speeds, across a broad front.

The best way to visualise matters is perhaps by applying military dictum, where Threat is Capability multiplied by Intent. At stake is the UK keeping an independent sovereign capacity; the pressures arise from the building of EU structures bound together by growing political collectivisation. 

Currently, the immediate direct risk to the UK’s independent military and security establishment from collectivised EU capability is still low, because the EU still has limited assets, unvarnished structures, and prescribed authority. However, over the past three years there have been significant developments that have generated brand new short-term hazards and fresh medium-term ones.

Recent EU agreements have been pushing the corporate EU to the fore, with greatly increased budgets, new frameworks, and the setting up of key standing force components. A number at this stage are still largely nascent; we still do not know for instance how the EU’s new European Medical Command will look, basically generating an EU version of M.A.S.H. (less “Hawkeye” Pierce). We can make a prediction based on the policy towards the likes of the EU’s Satellite Centre and the EU Intelligence Cell. Meanwhile, a parallel approach has been the short cut of formally linking in with existing multinational entities, agreeing that for instance the European Maritime Force or European Gendarmerie Force might be tapped for missions. 

So notwithstanding faltering steps, the process of generating capability is developing slowly but unequivocally in a known direction. A useful comparison can be found in the debates and processes by which the early US Federal Army was built up, focusing on small standing elements of the technical branches to which the states would supply the wider manpower in time of need. 

Simultaneously, the intent by contrast has accelerated exponentially. One might expect differences of ambition across the EU bodies, but on audit these turn out to be more about priorities. That’s even been the case within the Council where one might have predicted fights between do-little and do-much states, but the trend has been more about shifting alliances as countries argue that particular capabilities rather than others should be the main focus. Meanwhile the Commission’s, the EEAS’s, and the European Parliament’s Defence ambitions surpass one another in turn. Anyone still doubting the strategic direction of travel ought to reflect that the EU treaties themselves are now openly permissive – a ‘legitimate aspiration’ clause has been introduced that unequivocally allows the EU to drive towards delivering a “Common Defence”.

The EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy is an act of evolution. Too often it is looked at as a short-term affair, perhaps seen just from the narrow vantage point of the length of a Whitehall desk posting. It was once said that only the British nobility and the Chinese Communist Party planned their ambitions cross-generationally; clearly looking back at the last thirty years we have to add the European Union institutions to that select list. 

Consider the trajectory of its cousin, Foreign Affairs. EU integration took its corporate diplomatic representation from one office in a third country in 1954 to a workforce of 320 staff in 1973, to 50 delegations by 1980, added its first seat at a UN body in 1991, and ran at 5,000 staff at 150 countries by 2003. At the last count with the Development teams now also rolled in, it employs 7,000 on an admin budget of half a billion. An identical process has been operating in Defence, and it’s worth reflecting on the persistent thread which has for instance similarly taken us from just an ad hoc working group on European Armaments Policy in 1995 to a full-blown European Defence Agency today. Nor are the policies always so clear-cut and distinct as to make the transition and interconnection of EU aspirations always so visible; the Common Maritime Policy for example includes the Defence interests of maritime surveillance and coastal policing, but also encompasses everything from the Common Fisheries Policy to off-shore wind and throws in CO2 capture and maritime museums to boot. So the track record of integration alone should encourage us to be alert. 

Today, EU Defence integration might be said to be about five core areas of development.  

It’s firstly about more money. The European Commission has long used funding as a policy driver, especially in areas where it had a weak legal basis for its actions such as in youth engagement, culture and sport. Matched funding draws in member states without the EU having to find the full budget itself. Access to money guides and incentivises national policy direction – the Commission acknowledges the fact – and ultimately generates an ideological baseline to a programme. Bluntly put, it points in a direction and sticks an EU flag on top.

It’s also about more institutions. An example here has been the development of a standing EU military HQ, to help put the “permanent” into Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). The UK objected, so one was agreed while just giving it a different name – by no means an innovative approach in EU circles. We may in this recall Romano Prodi’s own dictum about calling an EU army “Margaret” or “Mary-Anne” to avoid the odiousness of the name.

It’s about policy, leading ultimately to doctrine. Thousands of pages of the former have been generated. The EDA has already begun generating output over the latter (over helicopter tactics), as no doubt will the new Training Mission Competence Centre and the European Training Certification Centre for European Armies. 

It’s about business and jobs and the ‘rationalisation’ of the “European Defence Industry”, seen by the Commission as a single unit that needs to be whittled down into regional hubs within the Single Market focusing on particular products. This, of course, comes at the cost of nation states being able to maintain their own full spectrum production. Rationalisation might make sense if you are, say, a CEO in the Spanish armaments industry angling after expanding your plant as part of ‘Spain’s share’; it makes less so if you are a Government Minister about to be cornered to choose which Defence industry sector to chop, while also mindful of the refusal of the Belgians to sell us ammunition in the Falklands War. 

It’s about security too. There is a balance to be struck, but the UK is on a special seesaw with a risky pivot. Unique amongst European states, the UK is part of the Five Eyes alliance, a hugely privileged and sensitive relationship founded on three quarters of a century of mutual trust with Washington. This will be put at risk if the UK gets too close to the vastly inferior EU intelligence osmosis. The UK does have an interest in cooperating with EU counterparts on certain specific aspects of operational security and over some data sharing in policing matters, but the necessary firewall beyond that makes for a desert.

I avoid reflecting here on the potential input of the Luxembourg Court into all this, although someone in Government ought.

There are presently six live military CSDP operations and 10 civilian missions, involving some 5,000 forces deployed internationally wearing the 12-star arm patch. The new CSDP supremo Josep Borrell has just set the goal of expanding it to an EU-flagged force of 60,000. 

It may well be that Mr Borrell fails to deliver in this ambition. It has been tried before; last time it failed, yet still delivered the EU Battlegroup. Another failure, with the political compromises that follow it, is still likely to take the EU a step closer to his ambition of “pooling our national sovereignties together”. “We have the instruments to play power politics,” he told MEPs. “The EU has to learn to use the language of power.” 

The ground play involves the old school Brussels salami-slicing machine that Eurosceptics have been complaining about for decades. For every blocked grand scheme, two other compromises and a small breakthrough somewhere else take integration gradually onward. And this is a big, interconnected field: a web being spun to form a “Common Defence” anchored on several points. The consequences of individual institutional links and locks the UK may sign up to really can cumulate in this environment.

So, the EU’s intent is unambiguous and high. The capability is slowly but inexorably growing. The threat therefore is gradually increasing but already significant. This means we can mitigate it if we plan appropriately, responding to the varied yet interlinked risks by keeping a respectful distance and making sure any form of future UK association with an EU programme includes a kill switch. 

An appropriate model would look like this important draft Brexit Defence and Security treaty which keeps the terms firmly intergovernmental from the outset. Setting out our relationship at this juncture and in this format removes the lingering policy ambiguity that still permeates parts of Whitehall.

For Brexit to mean Brexit, to preserve the critical US intelligence link, and to protect the NATO family, we have to make a clean and unambiguous break with the self-centred, ambitious and expanding EU Defence project. The time to do it is now.